Varadkar tells unionists: ‘I know you might be angry but we have no hidden agenda’

Taoiseach marks 20th anniversary of Belfast Agreement in US by reassuring unionists

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes questions from the floor after giving a foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC on day three of his visit to the US.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes questions from the floor after giving a foreign policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC on day three of his visit to the US. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has sought to assure unionists that Ireland has “no hidden agenda” as he called on them to get behind efforts to break the political deadlock in the North.

Speaking at a public forum to mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement at the Library of Congress last night, the Taoiseach said: “I know that you are concerned - perhaps worried - maybe even angry, at recent political developments.”

“I recognise that recent statements and actions by Irish nationalists, including the Irish Government, about Brexit have been seen as unwelcome or intrusive. If that is the case, I want to make it clear that it certainly was not our intention. I want to repeat that we have no hidden agenda.”

Pledging “close co-operation and leadership” from the British and Irish Governments, Mr Varadkar said that “Ulster-Scots Protestants are as much a part of the history of the Irish in America as the Irish Catholics are. In the same way, they are an integral, respected and valued part of the history - and the future - of the island of Ireland.”

Tuesday night’s forum was attended by former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, the party’s new leader Mary Lou McDonald, deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and Senator George Mitchell, the envoy who played a key role in the formulation of the Belfast Agreement 20 years ago. Also in attendance were Congressman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democratic, and Representative Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, who played a central role in the Agreement and who will be honoured at the annual Ireland Funds Gala Dinner in Washington on Wednesday night.

In a sign of frustration with the lack of political progress in the North, the White House has not invited Ms McDonald or DUP leader Arlene Foster to the annual St Patrick’s Day reception on Thursday. Mr Adams and the DUP’s Ian Paisley jnr have been invited and are expected to attend. Britain’s Northern Secretary Karen Bradley will also be in attendance. Mr Varadkar declined to comment on the decision not to invite the two party leaders this week, saying it was a matter for the White House to decide.

Addressing the forum, Mr Adams said he believed that the return of power-sharing is the best option for the North. Noting that Sinn Féin and the DUP had signed up to a power-sharing agreement, he said he believed that the DUP leader and negotiators had “acted in good faith.”

“Unfortunately their party did not follow their example,” he said.

He continued: “The current impasse is deeply worrying. I am concerned about the polarisation in the North.” Mr Adams also welcomed the US administration’s commitment to appoint a Northern Ireland special envoy, something that had been rejected earlier in the day by the Taoiseach. Mr Varadkar said earlier on Tuesday, that while an “ongoing interest and engagement from the administration, Congress and Irish America,” was welcome, “I’m not sure that he appointment of an envoy is needed at this stage. The two parties came close to an accommodation.. I don’t think brokerage is what we need.”

Sir Kim Darroch, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, said that the British government remains “committed to the Belfast Agreement” adding that its core principles, “have our full and unreserved support.”

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP said it was time for unionists to accept their role in the “toxic legacy” in Northern Ireland. “No one needed to die to get where we are today.”

The SDLP’s Colum Eastwood criticised those who are threatening to rip up the Good Friday Agreement. Noting that he was just 14 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, he said he continued to be inspired by those who ere involved in the negotiations.